One of the awesome yet frightening things about my professional social network right now is that I am following people who are far more brilliant, far more successful, and far more experienced than me. The blog posts that these folks make are always deep, always causing me to think and roll their ideas around in my head. Having recently begun to follow my 300th person on Twitter, you might imagine that my brain has a full-time job just trying to digest what all of these folks are saying.
It is with that preamble that I mention Chris Brogan’s recent post called The Painter and his Window. Now, on one level, I can’t really relate to this post at all. Sadly, and for reasons that I certainly don’t understand, I don’t have a ton of admirers who wait to talk to me and get my insights (I know, I know, I’m working on it!!). On the other hand, however, the post gets at an issue that I’m sure tons of people experience even beyond the realm of marketing and business. That issue is that passion doesn’t pay the bills.
The fine line between helping and sacrificing
When I was in college and graduate school, my great passion was learning. I wanted to learn everything in the universe. I wanted to be challenged. One of the great first experiences I had my freshman year in college was walking down the street and hearing a couple of guys jousting about existentialism. I thought, “Wow! This is amazing!” All through my academic career, I read every page of every book about 95% of the time. I took notes on every book. This seemed odd to a lot my peers. You can get a jist of an argument by reading the first and last sentence of every paragraph, so the legend goes. But I didn’t care about getting things done quickly. I was soaking up that knowledge because I loved it.
Part of the academic environment is peers helping each other, just like part of today’s marketing environment is peers sharing knowledge. I wasn’t the valedictorian or anything, but I was smart enough that people would sometimes ask me for advice on their papers, or I’d be asked about a book we were reading. Little things. I always obliged. I’m a nice person, plus it gave me a chance to talk about things I liked. Win-win proposition, right?
Of course, the problem with these scenarios is that they can get out of control. Sometimes people will say, “Hey can you help me?” when really they mean, “Can you do this for me?” The other problem that can arise is that you can end up getting behind on your own work because you are spending so much time helping other people. “Oh, I can whip up my paper in no time,” I used to say to myself. And most of the time it would work out, but sometimes it became a pinch.
When I translate this to a professional situation rather than an academic one, I see the problems inherent in being passionate about your job in this newly networked world in which we live. It’s not just folks like Brogan that have people looking in the window. If you have a friend who’s a doctor or nurse, it’s hard to avoid talking to them when someone in your family is sick. You want just one little piece of advice, and you’re friends, so they shouldn’t mind. We expect our teachers to stay after school or to work at all hours because our kids need to learn, and after all, teachers love what they do. A lot of people have good hearts and they want to help as many people as they can in whatever way they can. But when you have to start choosing between self-preservation and helping people, it can put you in a real pickle.
Passion is Priceless. Knowledge is Free.
We’re at a really interesting crossroads in our society, and I think Chris’s post illustrates this in a unique way. Everybody is all about passion right now, right? Lots of people love Ty Pennington because he is so passionate about helping people on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. People love “foodies” like Emeril because they so love their work. People love Jillian Michaels because of her passion for helping people.
Admiration, though, is starting to have a “chaser.” If you admire someone these days, the next step is to find out how they do what they do. If you admire Emeril, you want to learn how you can cook like him. If you admire Jillian, you want to learn how to motivate and look like her. If you admire folks in business or marketing, you feel like you should be able to learn how your role models did what they did.
The really interesting twist is that most of these folks today are sharing exactly that information. Advice, tips, step-by-step guides, videos, television shows, are all full of ways that we can become the people we admire. What worries me is that there is a growing sense that if someone is successful, they are OBLIGATED to bring other people up with them. And that’s just not the way it works.
Brogan ends his post by asking people what their window looks like.
Well, my window looks into a classroom. I’ve got a pad of paper in front of me, hundreds of professors talking to me, and I’m surrounded by people who are trying to learn the same stuff. Sometimes I’ll ask questions, not just for me but so all of those other students can learn too. Sometimes a student will ask me questions, and I try to answer. But I am not making my living answering those questions right now, whereas my “professors” are.
I am in a mode of learning, building, and trying to apply what I learn. I do this so that I can be the best possible representative for and of my company’s clients. Ultimately, my success will only be measured against how successful our clients are. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
These “professors” are helping me achieve that success by teaching me things they have discovered or learned through experience. They offer an awful lot of this information for free. An incredible amount. So if they have a book out, I’m likely to buy it, not just because I know it’ll be great but because I know that that’s how they make their living in the world, at least in part. And I am willing to support that. If my fellow students find success, I will support them.
I think some people, though, stand outside that “painter’s window” and fully expect the painter to talk to them whenever they demand it. Not only that, but if they want to know how to do that brush stroke, or how that shading effect works, they feel that the painter should pass along that information.
To the experts out there, whatever your field may be, I say, only give that from which you are okay to part. And to all you crowds outside the experts’ windows, remember that if we are all experts, than no one is.
Image by Fred Kuipers. http://www.sxc.hu/profile/fredjk